“The Battle of Fisheating Creek” sounds like it may have taken place at an obscure Civil War battlefield, but this is a battle that is being waged today, between one of Florida’s cattle baron families, and the public.  The creek has been traveled by the public since the early days of Florida’s settlers, when the waterways were the highways that were used for trading and travel.  These days, it is used for recreation, by paddlers, campers, hunters , fishers, birdwatchers, and photographers.  It has been immortalized in stunning black and white photos by the world-famous photographer, Clyde Butcher.

Fisheating Creek is well-known amongst the kayakers and canoers of south Florida, as a great place to see the kind of scenery and wildlife that you might only expect to see in old-time photographs.  You can still see the real natural beauty of this place, just a little over 100 miles south of the city that “The Mouse” built, Orlando.  Fisheating Creek is a nature photographer’s paradise, with majestic cypress trees, spanish moss-covered live oaks, and the tea-stained red-brown, yet clear water, twisting and turning throughout its length.

Here, you can get up-close to nature in its beauty, with great blue herons that squawk at you angrily, as they give up their fishing spot, and hot-pink roseate spoonbills, swishing their heads side-to-side as they search for shrimps and small fishes in the shallow waters.  Sometimes, as you glide silently amongst the cypress trees in the narrow channels, you get a hint of what is to come.  Downy feathers cling to the bushes, and an earthy odor of guano tests your senses, just before a flock of a hundred white ibis fly up, with their “grumpy old man call”… awk, awk, awk, awk… like an old geezer complaining about kids invading “his” sidewalk with skateboards.   The limpkin looks at first, like the older brother to the ibis, because of its general shape, and the long, somewhat curved bill.  But they are larger, they are colored brown with white specks, and they are louder as well.  Their cry will wake you out of your reverie, and if you’re fast enough, maybe you can snap a shot before he takes off with his apple snail meal.

Of course, being wild Florida, there are gators, big and small.  You might not see any for a few miles, but then again, you may see enough that you will lose track if you try to count them all.  These gators are wild, and wary, and are unlikely to approach humans.  They are much more likely to watch as you approach, then silently slip into the water, still watching, with just their eyes and nostrils protruding above the surface.  If you get closer… poof!  They submerge and wait for you to go past, before quietly surfacing again.

In the 1980’s, Fisheating Creek’s natural beauty began to be known by more than just the local residents.  People came from miles away, to paddle its pristine waters, and camp & fish on its shores.  They recognized the creek for the treasure that it still is, mostly, to this day.  That was perceived as a problem by Lykes Brothers, the big cattle company that owned hundreds of thousands of acres on both sides of the creek.  They claimed ownership of the creek, and erected fences and felled trees across the waterway, to restrict access.

The Battle of Fisheating Creek had begun, and Lykes Brothers had fired the first shots.  These were answered by people such as Becky Hendry, and then Ellen Peterson, through the organization that came to be known as “Save Our Creeks”.  David Guest, now a lawyer for Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit against Lykes.  Working with Guest, Monika Reimer searched through nearly a century’s-worth of records, until she found a hand-drawn map from the 1920’s that proved conclusively, that Fisheating Creek had historically been a navigable waterway along its 50 mile length.  It was the evidence that was desperately needed, to stop Lykes in its tracks.  In 1997, it was decided in court, that Fisheating Creek belongs to us, the public.

In the 1997 agreement, it was decided that exotic vegetation that had clogged Cowbone Marsh, about halfway between Rte. 27 and Lake Okeechobee, would be removed, to restore the natural flow of the creek.  That task was turned over to the Florida Game Commission.  According to Earthjustice, the money that was appropriated for this purpose, was misspent, and instead, was used to buy swamp buggies for hunters and fishermen.  The Army Corps of Engineers got involved, and brought their own “solution” to the Cowbone Marsh “problem”.  Their plan is to dump 50 million pounds of sand in the marsh, and build several roads through it, effectively splitting the creek, creating a lake, and cutting the flow of water to the lower part of the creek, and Lake Okeechobee.

David Guest and Monika Reimer are in the process of filing several legal actions to prevent this, but in the meantime, a series of dams have already been built across Cowbone Marsh.  As recently as July 2008, I paddled from Lake Okeechobee up to Cowbone Marsh.  At that time, the flow of water was still getting through the marsh, and I was able to paddle my kayak the 9 or 10 miles to get to where it was blocked by water hyacinths.   In September 2009, I kayaked from the Fisheating Creek Outpost by Rte. 27, nearly 12 miles downstream, to where thick grasses had blocked navigation from the other side of Cowbone Marsh.  At that point, I had paddled all but 1 or 2 miles of Fisheating Creek, from the mouth, to approximately 36 miles upstream.  I was eagerly anticipating being able to “connect the dots” after the exotics were removed.

On my last attempt to reach Cowbone Marsh via the mouth of the creek, the flow of water had trickled to almost nothing, as a result of the dams that had been built at the marsh.  Only a mile into the trip, the water was so shallow that I had to get out and walk my kayak for a hundred yards at a time.  This is a kayak that can easily float in 8″ to 10″ of water.  After slogging through the shallows like this, for 2 1/2 miles, I gave up the effort and turned around.
Cowbone Marsh dam pic 1Pic #1 of the dams at Cowbone Marsh.
Cowbone Marsh Dam pic 2Pic #2 of the dams at Cowbone Marsh.

Cowbone Marsh dam pic 3Pic #3 of the dams at Cowbone Marsh.

Now I hear about this misguided plan to change Cowbone Marsh, and Fisheating Creek, forever.  These closed-door decisions have been made, with zero input from the REAL owners of the creek, you and me… the public.  I am just one paddler, but this doesn’t just affect me.  It affects every member of the public that might want the future generations of, not only Florida residents, but of the USA and the world, that want to have the natural beauty of Florida’s still-natural waterways to remain pristine, for the people, and the animals, to enjoy.

What can you do to help?  Visit the following links, and donate your money, or your time.  They will both be needed, and you can help.

Earthjustice:  http://earthjustice.org/features/campaigns/into-the-swamp
Save Our Creeks:  http://www.saveourcreeks.org/index.html